Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Butcher” Inspired by the Former New Jersey State Insane Asylum in Trenton

Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Butcher” Inspired by the Former New Jersey State Insane Asylum in Trenton

When Joyce Carol Oates learned how women inmates at the former New Jersey State Insane Asylum in Trenton in the early 20th century were terribly exploited, she was inspired to write about them – and the men who experienced them – in his new novel, Butcher (Knopf), set largely in New Jersey and based on authentic historical documents.

Oates, 86, the author of more than 58 novels and a professor at Princeton and Rutgers universities, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won numerous other awards, including the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal. She lives outside of Princeton.

The cover of "Butcher" by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’ new novel, Butcheris out now.

What made you want to write? Butcher? Was it partly to draw attention to the horrible things that have been done to women in the past?
Yes, I wrote, in less detail, in my novel about similar restrictions and sexist exploitations of women in the 19th century. A Bloodsmoor Romance a few years ago, and I wrote about what is called medical misconduct in a series of poems collected in American melancholy. My second husband, Charlie Gross, was a historian of scientific research and his many books on the subject fascinated me. My novel The man without shadow explores (a man) whose memory has deteriorated, and Butcher explores a similar exploitation of women who are trapped, captive as “mental patients” in (the New Jersey State Insane Asylum in Trenton ) – a real place, no longer open, but not far from my home, under the long-time management of the famous Henry Cotton.

Is the book based on real people besides Dr. J. Marion Sims, the famous doctor who conducted experiments on enslaved women in the 19th century?
Yes, it is based on three notable and renowned doctors, including Henry Cotton, who lived in the 20th century.

Have you visited the New Jersey locations where you set your novel, such as Morristown, Hermitage, and Trenton? If so, have these visits changed your perception of these places?
Yes, I visited Morristown, but not the Hermitage. I have visited Trenton a lot, served on a jury at the courthouse, and visited the Trenton Museum often, but the old insane asylum has long been closed and inaccessible to visitors.

You have been at Princeton for more than four decades and have advised many students there, including Jonathan Safran Foer when he wrote Everything is illuminated. It is unusual for a writer as productive as you to devote so much time to helping young writers. Why are you doing this ?
Teaching is a fascinating activity for me and an important part of my life.

You are one of the most prolific writers in American literature and one of the most honored. Can you talk about your writing routine? When do you write and how often? How long does it usually take you to finish a novel?
There is no specific writing routine: I try to write as much as I can every day. Obviously, days vary. Additionally, every novel is different; some are lengthy and require research, others are based more directly on personal experience and require little research. Butcher required research, primarily on 19th century “experiments,” and occasional recourse to the life story of J. Marion Sims, available online from Harvard University. My novel Blond— a “posthumous autobiography” of Norma Jeane Baker/Mariusn Monroe — required both conventional research and watching as many Monroe films as possible; my recent novel Breathe—based on intimate experience—required a minimum of research. My newest novel Baby sitter– based on a real-life, unsolved serial killer case in the Detroit area in 1977, when I lived there – also required a modicum of research.

What is your favorite thing about Princeton? About New Jersey?
People! Without a doubt, the wonderful friends and colleagues in and around Princeton; the same goes for New Jersey as a whole. I visit the Delaware Valley often; my favorite little town is Lambertville, and also Hopewell. I don’t live in Princeton but several miles away, towards Hopewell, in a suburban-rural area, on three acres of mostly wooded land. New Jersey is a beautiful state, a true garden state. Although my own garden is modest, it brings me much happiness every year.

(RELATED: Read our 2011 interview with Joyce Carol Oates)

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